Automobiles are not as quiet as you might think.Try driving down a bumpy road with the radio off. You’ll hear the suspension system moving, some gear whine from the transmission and drivetrain, tire noise and maybe even some wind noise from around the windows, mirrors and sunroof.Automakers have become very skilled at a strategy called masking, in which these unpleasant noises are buried by the sexy growl of a tuned exhaust system or an engine ingesting air as it revs up and, of course, with high-performance audio systems.But a new generation of electric vehicles is presenting sound engineers with a whole set of new challenges as they set out to create vehicles that deliver the refinement customers expect. Into this mix comes an unlikely player: Nikon, the famous Japanese manufacturer best known for cameras and lenses.Since 2009, Nikon has been quietly expanding into the auto industry with its metrology division. Metrology is a science that deals with measurement. The technology Nikon developed for its camera lenses is now being deployed in a new-generation laser scanning measurement system called APDIS, short for Accurate Precision Distance Scanning. Nikon’s equipment is being used in 36 vehicle assembly plants worldwide, the company says.In the EV era, manufacturing quality is going to be crucial to the success of vehicles that run on electrons instead of octane. I recently chatted with Paul Lightowler, product manager for Nikon Metrology, from his home office in the West Midlands, the hub of the United Kingdom’s auto industry.Not only are some new automakers aiming to break into the market with EVs using APDIS, but so are some of the Tier 1 suppliers making key components, such as battery trays, which not only have to keep battery packs at proper temperatures but also must provide protection in the event of a collision.
Many small things can go wrong on an assembly line that prevent panels from fitting the way they were designed.”You have to inspect the parts [coming from suppliers] to make sure they are good,” said Lightowler. “If you have a part that is a little bigger or twisted in some way, you are not going to put most things together. Also, you have fixturing, the physical structure that hold parts together while the welding is being done, and that could change, move and shift.”Robots are very repeatable,” he added, “but only under certain circumstances. If a robot is damaged or if the temperature changes too much, the robot can start drifting. And over time, robots wear out. All of these things add up … and all of a sudden, the door doesn’t fit. Or your interior trim doesn’t go on the studs and fasteners.”One disadvantage to APDIS is cost. It’s more expensive than a coordinate measuring machine, but it offers a manufacturer the potential to save money by reducing product development time and — maybe more importantly — detecting defects before they get out the factory door. Lightowler says APDIS also cuts down on scrap and rework.New vehicle manufacturers don’t have much room for error. They have to launch with high quality to have a chance at long-term success. “The ones that will survive appreciate that they need to put in the investment to get their quality up,” Lightowler said. “If they don’t, they are going to suffer for it.”